The 3-1 Buffalo Bills are making a trip to Cincinnati this weekend to face off against the 1-3 Bengals. The Bills are three point underdogs in this one, suggesting that Vegas thinks the game would be even if they played at a neutral field. Are the Bengals better than their record, and how do they match up against Buffalo’s roster? Using the All-22 tape, I’ve scouted the key attributes of Cincinnati’s team.
The Bengals’ offense had an abysmal start to the season. Andy Dalton finished the first two games with no passing touchdowns, four interceptions, eight sacks, and 5.97 yards per attempt. The running game only managed 156 yards on 46 attempts, good for 3.46 yards per carry. They only scored nine points combined against the Ravens and the Texans.
Then Cincinnati took a page from Rex Ryan’s book, firing offensive coordinator Ken Zampese after two games and promoting Bill Lazor into the position. Now, the offense has new life: 55 points in the past two weeks, and six touchdowns against two turnovers.
Scheming around weaknesses
How are they making things work? They’ve identified their weak points, and they’re calling plays to avoid them.
The Cincinnati offensive line had long been a veritable strength of their roster. This offseason, they chose to promote from within, allowing Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler to leave in free agency. New left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi moved from right tackle, third-year player Jake Fisher became the new starter at right tackle, and 2013 7th round pick T.J. Johnson was promoted to starting right guard. The results haven’t been pretty. The young players are struggling with run blocking and pass protection, and it’s hurting the offense.
The 2016 Bengals ranked 13th in rushing and 23rd in yards per attempt. In the offseason they drafted Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon to give those numbers a boost. While Zampese was running the show, Mixon didn’t get much action, but Lazor has made him a feature back, with 42 touches in the past two games.
With that being said, Mixon hasn’t been able to do much damage on the ground. He’s running for a paltry 2.62 yards per carry. Collectively, the Bengals rank 28th in yards per rushing attempt. The offensive line allows too much penetration and can’t open large holes to work. Mixon can break tackles, and he’s dangerous on the move, but he isn’t getting the chance to build momentum.
To offset the weaknesses with blocking, Lazor is taking advantage of one of the positive traits possessed by his line: their athleticism. Calling screen plays puts his blockers in space, where the game is less about anchoring strength and more about the ability to reach a moving target. It also punishes teams that blitz Dalton, hoping for a turnover.
This 61-yard touchdown really highlights what can make the screen game so productive. The Browns are caught in essentially the worst case scenario for this type of call: cover 1 man. Four receivers run routes to the sidelines, leaving only the free safety between the numbers. Russell Bodine meets him nearly twenty yards downfield, and the center gets enough of a block to spring Gio Bernard the rest of the way. Both Bernard and Mixon are very capable receivers, and both are deadly in space.
Here’s another look at a screen play. Again, Bodine gets out in space (along with the right guard Johnson). The runner patiently follows his blockers and picks up a solid chunk of yards.
The Buffalo Bills’ defenders have played with discipline and great tackling form so far in the season. To win on Sunday, they’ll need to live up to their reputation, between the screen passes and Dalton’s ability to scramble for first downs.
Two top targets
Part of the explanation for Dalton’s regression the past two seasons is his weakened receiving corps. Marvin Jones and Muhammad Sanu left in free agency, and Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd haven’t come close to matching them. Tyler Eifert only saw action in eight games last year, and he’s already missed two in 2017 (and is likely to miss Sunday’s game). The Bengals drafted Washington receiver John Ross with their first round pick this year, but Ross has been battling injuries, and he ended up in the doghouse when he fumbled his first and only touch of the regular season. He’s not likely to play Sunday, either.
At least they can always count on A.J. Green. The 6’4″ 205 pounder is right on track to make his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl, with 315 yards and two touchdowns through a quarter of the season. Green’s combination of size and silky-smooth route running will make him a tough cover for any of Buffalo’s cornerbacks and, unlike Julio Jones, he’s not injured. The Bills will have their work cut out for them, but the Cleveland Browns gave them a hint of what not to do:
Yeah, don’t blitz eight and leave your safety one-on-one with Green, seven yards off the line of scrimmage.
We’ve mentioned Green and we’ve mentioned the running backs. The other name who has stepped up is Tyler Kroft. The 6’5″ 240 pound tight end came on strong the last two weeks, catching nine of eleven targets for 96 yards and two touchdowns. It should be noted that Kroft was limited in practice with neck and knee injuries this week, which makes his availability tough to guess. However, the tall target has enough athleticism to get open on shorter routes, and he’s helped Dalton develop a rhythm in Lazor’s offense.
The Bengals’ defense has played solidly through the first quarter of the season, keeping the team in games when the offense couldn’t find any room to work. The Bengals run a fairly typical 4-3 scheme that does shift between one-high and two-high safety looks, and rotates a group of cornerbacks. The squad has several dynamic athletes who could give Buffalo’s players fits on Sunday.
Geno Atkins and his Defensive End Band
For most of the past six years, the star of Cincinnati’s defense has been defensive tackle Geno Atkins. The 6’1″ 286 pound three technique is a wrecking ball in the middle of the defensive line. He recovered fully from an ACL tear a few seasons ago, and at 29 years old, he’s still pushing his limits. Atkins leads the Bengals with three sacks this year, earned with a combination of his excellent speed, leverage, and phenomenal technique.
Watching that play just gives bad feelings about seeing Atkins matched one-on-one against John Miller. Miller’s not especially athletic, and he struggled mightily with pass rushing tackles like Fletcher Cox and Kawann Short. The Bills have actually held Atkins to a mostly clean sheet recently — 3 combined tackles and no sacks in his 2015 and 2016 games against Buffalo — but that doesn’t mean they can rest easy.
Other than Atkins, six players have collected sacks for the Bengals this year. Cincinnati has a nice rotation forming, with veterans Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson as the anchors. Chris Smith, who was acquired in a trade this offseason, has added 1.5 sacks as a pass rushing specialist. The Bengals also drafted two rookie edge rushers: Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson.
Lawson is a burgeoning star. You may not know his name yet, but you will before long. After missing most of the preseason with an injury, he worked his way into the lineup, and he already has 2.5 sacks this season.
That’s Lawson rushing from right defensive end against Joe Thomas. Lawson does everything right; he punches without losing balance, turns and extends a single arm at Thomas, keeps his hands above eye level for leverage, and drives to the quarterback without losing his desired depth. He walks Thomas right into DeShone Kizer.
Again, watch Lawson,- this time working in from the tight end. His strength, effort, and technique are already impressive.
Injuries may be the only thing that could hold him back. Lawson missed his entire sophomore season with a torn ACL, then missed half of his junior year with various injuries. Healthy for the moment, he’ll be a handful for either Dion Dawkins or Cordy Glenn.
Work against the aggression
The Bengals’ defense is athletic, but also aggressive. Buffalo will find room to work if they can exploit that mentality. Linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Nick Vigil are great athletes who can close gaps in a hurry, but they don’t have the best tackling efficiency. To exploit this, the Bills may put a tight end or running back in space, and try to break open a big play.
The cornerback group is an example of where Cincinnati’s “build through the draft” policy has come back to bite them. The Bengals used first round draft selections on Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, and William Jackson. None of them has measured up to the standard set by Leon Hall. Kirkpatrick is one starter, while Adam Jones holds the other spot. Both players have a tendency to get “grabby” when beaten. In the 36 games from 2015 through today, Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick have combined for 39 called penalties — combinations of defensive holding, defensive pass interference, and assorted tackling and roughness penalties. Not to be outdone, Jackson leads the team with four accepted penalties this year, including three defensive pass interference calls.
For Jackson (bottom of the screen), his issues can be traced to inexperience. He was an early entrant to the draft out of Houston, selected mainly for his raw athleticism and ball skills. His route recognition and mirroring still have a long way to go.
Here, Jackson, playing zone coverage, bites hard on the pump fake during an out-and-up route. It’s an easy pass interference call.
Darqueze Dennard hasn’t been able to get onto the field very much in four seasons. Some of it is a lack of athleticism, and some of it is a lack of ball skills. The Bengals have rotated him in as a slot cornerback this season, and he’s been able to generate a pass rush, to his credit.
It’s unfortunate that the Bills find themselves without Jordan Matthews available. Andre Holmes, Kaelin Clay, and a slumping Zay Jones won’t be able to threaten the Bengals’ defense very much. But if they keep feeding Charles Clay, then they’ll find room in the intermediate parts of the field, and if they go back to the screen game, they can deter the Bengals’ burgeoning pass rush.
Nothing the Bills can’t handle
The Bills are in the middle of a facing a tough gauntlet of defenses, but offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has done a nice job of shifting the offensive priorities to find a better fit for Tyrod Taylor, and the team has had success putting points on the board in the last couple of weeks. The Bengals’ defense should be roughly on par with the Falcons’ defense Buffalo just faced, one that bottled up the team for a large part of the day, but sprung enough leaks for some game-changing big plays.
On the other side of the ball, while the Bengals have had an offensive surge, some of their pride may be falling back to Earth soon. The Bengals haven’t found a way to effectively block for their dynamic running backs, and the only passing success they’ve had came with the debut of an unfamiliar offensive coordinator and a renewed focus on three-step drops and quick throws. The Bills’ defense already dealt with a gameplan like this in week one against the Jets. While they bent, they didn’t break, and they created enough big plays to turn the game decisively in their favor.
This is a road game, and several Bills entered Wednesday’s practice with varying levels of injury. But if the Bills are for real (like some of the media have started to anoint them after this 3-1 start), then they’ll come out of Paul Brown Stadium with a win and go into their bye week a surprising 4-1.